Google’s new building proposal reflects its DNA

If you’re striving to make sense of Google’s plans for its new north-of-Bayshore office space — call it the Greenhouse Complex — pay attention first to the company’s DNA, its history and its competition. They’ll tell you volumes about what Google is trying to achieve.

The design by architects Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick is striking, superior work. And the Mountain View City Council, which still has to deal with thorny issues of traffic and housing, shouldn’t have too many problems approving the concept.

When you look carefully at the renderings and watch the nine-minute video that Google has posted on YouTube (, three points leap out. In a sense, the proposal for moveable buildings inside giant glass membranes constitutes form following ambition:

This rendering shows the entry lobby of the proposed Landings building at the new Google campus in Mountain View. Consolidated parking sits below the

A) This is the anti-Apple complex. It hardly needs saying that Google and Apple are fierce rivals. And Google’s greenhouses — its entire campus, in fact — expresses the differences in stark terms. Where Apple’s new spaceship building in Cupertino is a great circle turned on itself, the legacy of Steve Jobs’ mania for secrecy, Google’s new buildings follow the mantra of open source.

The plan invites visitors to natural water sites nearby. The Green Loop, a circuit for bikes and pedestrians, actually weaves through the Huff Avenue building. “It can’t be a fortress that shuts away the neighbors,” says architect Ingels. Any guess what he’s talking about?

B) It’s a monument to impermanence. This sounds like a contradiction in terms: Monuments are meant be as permanent as we can make them. But like the original Crystal Palace, which was constructed in Hyde Park in 1851 and then moved to South London, Google’s new buildings celebrate change.

In fact, the design diminishes the importance of the structures inside the greenhouses: As David Radcliffe, Google’s vice-president of real estate, points out, they can be moved, or added to, like Lincoln logs. “It needs to be this incredibly flexible space,” Radcliffe says.

Why do it this way? Well, tech moves fast, and the demands of today don’t necessarily translate tomorrow. Google’s new driverless autos have a very different need for space than does its money-making search engine.

C. It’s an attempt to compete with the urban impulse of young techies. If one development has transformed the physical landscape of tech companies over the last 15 to 20 years, it has been the migration of young tech stars to urban environments, particularly San Francisco.

Mountain View remains resolutely suburban — most Googlers will still drive to work — but the designers are doing what they can to minimize the visibility of the car by putting in underground parking garages and emphasizing biking and walking.

Ingels says the idea is to give the area “the diversity, the liveliness that you’d find in an urban environment.” That might be more hopeful than real: The greenhouses are more likely to evoke the natural side of the Bayshore environment than the funk of the Mission District. But the renderings promise more activity than the ordinary tech campus.

Like I say, there is still much more to talk about. I still haven’t seen an explanation of how Google intends to cool the Greenhouse buildings without incurring a significant energy bill — though I’m sure the company has thought through this issue.

Nonetheless, the Greenhouse Complex marks a significant step forward architecturally for Silicon Valley. And because Google has it in its DNA to be more open than its prime competitor, we’ll get a chance to see it and touch it without dispatching a drone overhead.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or

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